Perhaps it was simply the result of a chill; perhaps, the culmination of a lengthy period of spiritual crisis. Perhaps it was a combination of the two. Whatever the cause, the following day found Pyotr ill in his room, in a burning fever. He lay tossing on his bed, his face distorted. At times, he seemed to listen for something; at times, tried to spring up, as though to hurry off somewhere. The old doctor called in from the town felt his pulse, and talked of the cold spring winds, Maxim, frowning sombrely, avoided his sister's eyes.
The fever was persistent. When the crisis came, Pyotr lay for several days almost without sign of life. But youth is resilient; and he overcame his illness.
One morning Anna Mikhailovna noticed a ray of bright spring sunlight slanting across the sick-bed.
"Pull the curtain to," she whispered to Evelina. "This sunlight—I don't trust it!"
But when Evelina got up to go to the window, Pyotr spoke suddenly—the first words he had uttered in all these weary days:
"No, don't. Please. Leave it as it is."
Joyfully, they bent over him.
"Do you hear, then? Do you know me?" the mother asked.
"Yes," he replied, and paused. He seemed trying to remember something. Then, faintly, he exclaimed, "Ah, that's it!"—and tried to sit up. "That Fyodor—has he come?"
Evelina and Anna Mikhailovna exchanged anxious glances. Anna Mikhailovna laid her fingers across Pyotr's lips.
"Hush, hush," she whispered. "It's bad for you to talk."
He seized her hand, and kissed it tenderly. Tears rose to his eyes. He let them flow, and they seemed to relieve him.
For some days he was very thoughtful and quiet; but a nervous tremor passed over his face whenever Maxim's footsteps sounded in the hall. Noticing this, the women asked Maxim to keep away from the sick-room. But one day Pyotr himself asked to see him, and alone.
Coming up to the bed, Maxim took Pyotr's hand in his and pressed it gently.
"Well, then, dear boy," he began, "it seems I owe you an apology."
Pyotr's hand returned his uncle's pressure.
"I understand now," he said, very quietly. "You've taught me a lesson, and I'm grateful for it."
"Lesson be damned!" Maxim returned, with an impatient gesture. "It's an awful thing, being a teacher too long. Turns a man's brains into sawdust. No, I wasn't thinking of lessons, that day. I was simply angry, terribly angry, with myself as well as you."
"Then you really wanted me to?..."
"What matter what I wanted? And who can tell what a man wants, when he loses his temper? I wanted you to get some idea of other people's troubles, and think a little less about your own."
Neither spoke for a moment.
"That chant of theirs," Pyotr said finally. "I never once forgot it, all that time I was out of my head. And that Fyodor you spoke to—who was he?" '
"Fyodor Kandiba. An old acquaintance of mine."
"Was he ... born blind, too?"
"Worse. His eyes were burnt out in the wars."
"And now he goes about chanting that song?"
"Yes, and supports a whole brood of orphaned nephews by it. And has always a cheery word, or a joke, for everyone he meets."
"Really?" Pyotr asked, and went on musingly, "Well, but, say what you will, there's something mysterious about it all. And I'd like..."
"What would you like, dear boy?"
A few minutes later footsteps sounded in the hall, and Anna Mikhailovna opened the door. Looking anxiously into their faces, she could see only that both seemed moved by their conversation, which broke off abruptly with her appearance.
The fever once conquered, Pyotr's young body recovered swiftly. In another two weeks he was up and about.
He was greatly changed. Even his features seemed altered, no longer strained by those spasms of bitter inner suffering that had formerly been so frequent. The shock he had experienced was now followed by a state of quiet musing, tinged with a gentle melancholy.
Maxim feared that this might be only a temporary change, a slackening of nervous tension resulting from physical weakness.
Then, one day, as evening was gathering, Pyotr sat down to the piano, for the first time since his illness, and began to improvise, as he so liked to do. His music breathed a quiet, gentle sadness, very much in tune with his own mood. And then, all at once, through this quiet melancholy burst the first notes of the blind beggars' chant. The melody disintegrated, and Pyotr stood up abruptly, his face distorted, his eyes bright with tears. He was not yet strong enough, it seemed, to cope with so forceful an impression of life's dissonance as had come to him in the shape of this cracked, heart-rending plaint.
Again, that evening, Maxim and Pyotr talked long together, alone. And afterwards—the days drew into weeks, and the quiet weeks went by, and there was no change in Pyotr's peaceful mood. The too bitter, too selfish consciousness of his own misfortune which had made his spirit sluggish all those last months, and fettered his native energy, seemed now to have lost its foothold, to have yielded place to other feelings. He set himself aims again, laid plans for the future. Life was reviving within him, and his wounded spirit was putting forth fresh shoots, much as a tree that has been ailing bursts into new life at the first bracing breath of spring.
That very summer, it was decided, Pyotr was to go to Kiev for serious study. A famed pianist was to be his teacher. And only his uncle was to accompany him. On this both Pyotr and Maxim insisted.
A britzka turned off the road into the steppe, one warm evening in July, to stop for the night at the edge of a near-by wood. As dawn was breaking, two blind beggars came up the road. One of them was turning the handle of a primitive instrument: a hollow cylinder in which, as the handle was turned, a wooden shaft rubbed against taut strings, producing a monotonous and melancholy droning. In a voice somewhat nasal and cracked with age, but still pleasant to the ear, the other beggar was chanting a morning prayer.
A little further down the road, a train of carts was rumbling along, loaded with sun-dried fish. The carters heard someone hail the two blind beggars up ahead, and saw them turn off the road and approach some gentlefolk who where lounging on a rug beside a britzka drawn up at the edge of the wood. Some time later, as the carters were watering their horses at a wayside well, the beggars caught up with them again. But there were three of them now. The leader, tapping the road before him with his long staff at every step, was an old man with long, flowing grey hair and a drooping, snow-white moustache. His forehead was covered with old sores, evidently the mark of severe burns, and his eye sockets were empty. A thick cord, slung over his shoulder, stretched back to the second beggar's belt. This second was a tall, sturdy fellow, badly pock-marked, with a sullen, ill-natured look. Like the old man, he strode along with an accustomed swing, his sightless face uplifted as though seeking guidance in the sky. The third of the beggars was a youth, dressed in stiff new clothing of the sort that peasants wear. His face was pale, and there was a hint of fright in his expression. His step was hesitant. How and again he would stop, and seem to listen for some sound behind him—bringing up his companions with a jerk by the long cord that bound them all together.
They made steady progress. By ten o'clock the wood had fallen far behind—no more than a faint blue streak on the horizon. Around them stretched the open steppe. Later, a hum of sun-warmed telegraph wires announced a highway ahead, intersecting the dusty road. Coming out on the highway, they turned off along it to the right. Almost at once they heard a pounding of horses' hoofs behind them, and the dry sound of iron wheels on the metalled roadway. They stopped, and drew up at the side of the road. Again the wooden shaft began to turn, grinding out its melancholy drone, and the cracked old voice took up the chant:
"A-alms for the bli-ind...."
And as the chant continued, the youngest of the beggars joined the droning accompaniment with a soft thrumming of strings.
A coin clinked at old Kandiba's feet, and the sound of the wheels on the roadway stopped. The giver, evidently, wanted to be sure that his offering was not lost. Kandiba quickly found the coin. As he fingered it, his face lit with satisfaction.
"God save you," he said, turning again to face the vehicle in the road.
It was a britzka, occupied by a grey-haired gentleman of broad, square-hewn figure. A pair of crutches lay propped against the seat.
He looked intently at the youngest of the beggars—this old gentleman in the britzka. The youth was pale, but calm—though a moment before, at the first notes of Kandiba's chant, his fingers had plucked sharply, nervously at the strings, as though attempting to drown out the dismal plaint.
The britzka rolled off again. But, as long as the beggars were in sight, the old gentleman kept looking back at them.
Soon the sound of its wheels died away in the distance. Returning to the roadway, the beggars continued on their way.
"You bring us luck, Yuri," Kandiba said. "And you play right well, too."
A little later, the pock-marked beggar asked,
"For God, is it, you're going to Pochayev? On a vow?"
"Yes," the youth answered, very low.
"Think you'll get your sight back, eh?" This was said with a bitter smile.
"Some people do," Kandiba put in mildly.
"Never met any such, all the years I've been on the road," the pock-marked beggar returned morosely.
They fell silent, tramping steadily on. The sun rose higher and higher, silhouetting against the straight white line of the highway the dark figures of the beggars and, far ahead, the britzka that had passed them by. Further on, the highway forked. The britzka took the road that led to Kiev; but the beggars turned off the highway again, to wander on by country roads towards Pochayev.
Soon afterwards a letter reached the manor. Maxim wrote, from Kiev, that he and Pyotr were both well and that things were working out just as they had wished.
And the three beggars tramped on. All three, now, strode along with the same accustomed swing. Kandiba, in the lead, tapping the road before him with his staff at every step. He knew all the roads and lanes, and always reached the bigger villages in time for fair days or holidays. People would gather to hear the beggars' play, and the coins would come clinking into old Kandiba's outstretched cap.
The youthful beggar's hesitancy, his look almost of fright, soon disappeared. Each step he took along the roads brought to his ears new sounds—the sounds of the vast, unknown world for which he had exchanged the sleepy, lulling murmur of the quiet manor. His unseeing eyes opened ever wider. His chest expanded. His keen hearing grew keener still. Gradually, he came to know his companions—kindly Kandiba and sullen Kuzma. He tramped, with them, in the wake of long trains of squeaky peasant carts; spent many a night by blazing fires in the open steppe; heard the clamour of markets and fairs; stumbled upon human grief and misfortune—and not only among the blind!—that made his heart contract in bitter pain; and, strange as it might seem, found room now in his soul for all these new impressions. The beggars' chant no longer set him trembling. And, as day followed day in this great, roaring sea of life, his painful inner striving for the unattainable subsided and grew still. His sensitive ear caught every new song and melody, and when he began to play a look of quiet pleasure would soften even Kuzma's gloomy features. As they approached Pochayev, their little band grew steadily in number.